Pet Connection: Dogs, cats sometimes can sniff out our health woes before doctors do

05/03/2014 12:00 AM

05/02/2014 8:19 PM

Diane Papazian was allergic to dogs and she didn’t especially want a second one, but her husband, Harry, persuaded her to let him purchase Troy, a 3-month-old Doberman pinscher.

Not long afterward, Troy was in bed with the couple one evening and began insistently nuzzling Diane’s left side. It caused her to start itching, and that’s when she discovered the lump in her breast. It turned out to be malignant, but Diane is now cancer-free after a double mastectomy and chemotherapy.

The Papazians credit Troy with saving Diane’s life. And he’s not the only pet who has helped owners make such a discovery. A number of dogs and cats have alerted their people not only to various cancers and dangerous infections, but also to oncoming seizures, allergic reactions and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Our dogs and cats may not have been to medical school, but their superior senses of smell, as well as their habit of closely observing us 24/7, put them in the catbird seat when it comes to recognizing that something in our bodies has changed, even if we’re not always sure what they’re trying to tell us.

Scientific studies have confirmed the canine ability to sniff out lung, breast, bladder, prostate, colorectal and ovarian cancer, in some cases before it’s obvious through testing. They do this by taking a whiff of urine or breath samples from patients. Dogs have also been trained to alert people to oncoming epileptic seizures and assist them to a safe place until the seizure is over. What’s their secret? Dogs and cats live in a world of smells, and their olfactory sense is far more acute than our own.

Physiological changes such as lowered blood sugar or the presence of cancer produce or change volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted through the pores of the skin. Animals smell the difference and respond to it by licking, poking or pawing at the area. Your doctor won’t be sending you out for a “Lab test” or “cat scan” any time soon, but scientists are working to determine the exact compounds dogs are scenting, with the goal of developing an electronic “nose” that could detect cancer.

“Dogs are a wonderful part of the development of new technologies,” says Cindy Otto, DVM, Ph.D., executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. “Their incredible sense of smell allows them to detect very low concentrations of odors and also pick out specific odors from a tapestry of smells that can confuse standard technology. Unlike some of the other members of the animal kingdom with a highly developed sense of smell, dogs are also willing collaborators in our work.”

So if your dog or cat is insistently sniffing or pawing at a particular area of your body (or your other pet’s body), pay attention. He or she may be trying to tell you something important.

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